Olivia Ponce is a 39-year-old mother and Mexican immigrant who lives in a South Philadelphia rowhouse.

Mauricio Hernandez-Tapiero, 52, a single man from Colombia, makes his home in a North Philadelphia basement apartment.

Until Thursday, both were just undocumented immigrants.

Now, after President Obama announced his long-awaited and unprecedented plan, their prospects diverge dramatically.

She, in the president's words, can "come out of the shadows."

He cannot.

As the two Philadelphians prove, the executive action is a double-edged sword. It cuts a break to millions of undocumented people and carves the ground out from under millions of others.

Erika Almiron, director of Juntos, an immigrant-aid group that pressed Obama to act, summed up the result in a word:


Laid-off as an accountant

Born in Colombia, Hernandez-Tapiero earned a license as a certified public accountant in 1986, he said in an interview. Over 20 years, he worked for two multinationals in his homeland.

A layoff from a job as a Coopers & Lybrand auditor followed by almost three years of trying to find an equally good job in his field persuaded him to seek greener pastures in the United States. He came on a tourist visa in 2009 and never left.

For several years, he lived rent-free with a friend and worked at menial jobs.

"Because I was undocumented," he said Friday over lunch at a cafe, "I cleaned houses, worked in factories, and distributed fliers on the street."

He never earned much, Hernandez-Tapiero said, but when he had a little extra, he sent MoneyGrams to his two sisters and a brother in Colombia to help with the expenses of three nieces and two nephews.

On Thursday night, he had joined friends at a South Philadelphia taqueria to watch Obama address the nation.

He was hopeful.

"I was excited to see what he would say," said Hernandez-Tapiero. "And hoping that his action would cover all of us without papers."

When Obama announced the first criteria - residency for at least five years - Hernandez-Tapiero said he thought to himself: I might qualify. I've been here more than five years.

Then Obama said the action did not grant specific relief for single, childless persons. Hernandez-Tapiero's heart sank, and his eyes welled.

"It was a hard sensation," he said, "because at that moment, I realized I didn't qualify."

'Mixed-status' family

That same night, Olivia Ponce was at her job as a cook at a Mexican restaurant in North Philadelphia. She was busy in the kitchen and couldn't watch the television when Obama began speaking at 8 p.m.

Ponce's daughter, Olivia Vazquez, 20, is a sophomore at Community College of Philadelphia. She is more comfortable in English than her mother is, so Vazquez told the family's story in an interview Friday with The Inquirer.

She said that Ponce, a single mother, sold textiles in Mexico but found making ends meet difficult.

So Ponce left her then-6-year-old daughter behind with grandparents, crossed the Texas border illegally, and came to Philadelphia, where she washed dishes and cleaned houses to support herself and send money home.

Four years later, she sent for little Olivia, who was smuggled into the United States through a "coyote" network.

By then, Ponce had a son, Boris, born in 2003 in Philadelphia.

The three made up what immigration specialists call a "mixed-status" family: mother and daughter, both undocumented, and Boris, a U.S. citizen.

Vazquez eventually got protection from deportation through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program created in 2012 for immigrants who were brought to America illegally as children.

In the run-up to Obama's executive action, advocates had lobbied for relief from deportation specifically for the parents of DACA recipients. But Obama rejected that.

Instead, he chose to lift the threat of deportation for the estimated four million immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years, who can pass a criminal-background check, and who have a child or spouse who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. In Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, tens of thousands may qualify.

In the end, that's the provision that makes Ponce eligible for her own deferral from deportation for at least three years.

The birth of Boris, now 11, a sixth grader at Vare-Washington School in South Philadelphia, is the hook on which her relief hangs.

Vazquez said she felt a swirl of emotions Thursday - "happiness" for the beneficiaries of the president's action, "heartbreak" for the ones left out.

"I was very happy because my mom was covered," she said. "But what words do I say to [the ones left out] to make them feel better?"

Her conclusion: There are no words, and the right response, at least for her, is to keep pressing to gain them legal status.

Others say the battle continues.

"It is absolutely true that [Obama's action] is not the end of the story," said immigration law specialist Jill Family, director of the Law and Government Institute at Widener University Law School. She said what the president did was use "prosecutorial discretion" to prioritize which immigrants would get relief.

"It's not a substitute," said Family, "for comprehensive immigration reform."

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1